What’s The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do To Become A Good Negotiator?

As I travel and speak in the business community, one question comes up far and away more often than any other. People ask me, “Bob, what’s the single most important thing I can do to become a good negotiator?”

And the answer I give them always surprises them. It’s not a gimmick or a trick. It’s not a timing issue or some psychological sleight of hand. What it comes down to, once we clear away the misconceptions and conventional “wisdom,” is simply this: HOW YOU SEE YOURSELF.

We’ve discussed this before, but it’s so important, it bears some clarification. Here’s why how people see themselves is key to everything—more important than their negotiating skills, even more important than their intelligence: It’s because, even if they’re smart and have good skills, if their self-image as a negotiator is flawed, they will not perform well.  Said another way, the question isn’t “Can they do that?” but rather “Will they do that?”

A question that canny sales managers have asked themselves for decades about potential candidates is not “Can they close?” but rather “Will they close?”

In negotiating, it’s imperative that you see yourself as either equal to or even slightly above the other party—in power, in skill, and in deserving. But all too often, we go in seeing ourselves as less powerful, less skilled, and less deserving than the person across the conference table. If you could see a graphic representation of the “subservient mentality,” it would look like this:

That’s right: the big, boldfaced customer and the little, less consequential salesperson. The customer helps push this concept, of course, by saying things like “Your competitor has this . . .” “The ABC company can do that . . .” “The XYZ company has the same thing for less money—can you match them?”  The customer or prospect can be counted on to diminish you in terms of the quality, service, and value that you bring. And let’s not lose sight of the obvious but often lost-in-the-shuffle reason why that is: It’s their JOB!

But if you allow that—if you let them determine your status and, thereby, your entire situation—you are doomed before you even begin. It’s up to you to professionally (but forcefully) to state and substantiate the quality, the service, and the value of what you bring to the table. And that means that, with every breath you take, you must be asserting YOUR worth as well. If you’ve done this, then instead of laboring under an unequal subservient mentality, you start out on an even footing, with a business reciprocity relationship. And when you have that, everything changes.

A business reciprocity relationship looks like this:

reciprocity business relationship

In this relationship, there is a level playing field, with no subservience on either side. This is two businesspeople doing business as equals, and that’s good business! The salesperson in this business reciprocity relationship isn’t smarter and doesn’t work harder.

The difference is, this salesperson will simply do things, will say things, that a subservient salesperson will not. Because there is no imbalance in the relationship, the salesperson has a confidence, a willingness to challenge the prospective customer if need be—a certain “in your face” quality—that would be impossible in a subservient relationship.

This mentality lets you truly become a partner with your customers. We hear about partnering with customers all the time, but we don’t see it very often, and here’s why: It’s impossible to be a partner with a customer when you’re always trying to please them. That’s like a doctor always telling you what you want to hear instead of simply telling you the truth! You can’t help the customer by glossing things over and tiptoeing around their feelings. They need you to tell them the truth about what you’re seeing, possible solutions, and what you recommend as a course of action.  When you level with them, you are impressing them both as a professional and as an individual. And if they believe you to be a person of integrity, they usually go along with your recommendations.

Professional salespeople (especially at the higher levels of the profession) have this sort of relationship with their customers. The good ones aren’t pleasers, “yes-men,” or lapdogs. They’re smart. They have solutions, and they’re not afraid to speak up, to disagree when the customer—their partner—is about to make a mistake.  And that mind-set is probably the most important factor in being a good negotiator.